Neuroscientist Paul Cacioppo warned us in his lifelong research that loneliness is lethal. He said we are "connected throughout our lifespan from families to couples to churches to schools to nations and cultures (2013)." So since we are a social species, growing into adulthood isn't only about becoming autonomous, but becoming "the one on whom others can depend (ibid)." Cacioppo wasn't the first Paul to be prophetic. Paul McCartney sung a similar song in Eleanor Rigby (1969): "Look at all the lonely people. Where do they all come from? Look at all the lonely people. Where do they all belong?"
Now 2020, according to the Cigna U.S. loneliness index conducted in 2018, loneliness among Americans has reached “epidemic levels.” Surprisingly it’s not older adults who top the charts, but young Americans between ages 18 to 22. Nearly half of the respondents said they “sometimes or always” feel alone. More than 40% said that they feel alone even in relationships. Twenty something Brendan agrees:
"the worst loneliness is when I’m lonely but not alone. I’m around friends…but we’re not on the same wavelength. I’ll open it up to conversation. It’s like, we’re all adults. If something is affecting us this much, I think it should be talked about."
So let’s talk about it. Loneliness is different than depression. It’s different than grief. Loneliness is different than sought-out solitude. Because all of us need privacy and the silence of spirituality in a culture spinning out of control. But loneliness is a different animal. It’s a sharp splintering of the soul splitting us off from others, leaving us feeling alone like an outlier. We are dislocated, unheard and painfully unseen.
To McCartney’s credit, he doesn’t just look at the lonely people. He wonders why. Where do they all come from? That’s a tough question to answer. The roots are complex. So let me share a mix of my own musings with research on the subject.
Historian Fay Bound Alberti says that while loneliness is a universal emotion, the concept came into its own about 1800. She believes it started with a breakdown in families living in community coupled with a rise in individualism and consumer capitalism (2019. 11/17: NYTimes, Opinion Letters). From there, loneliness skyrocketed in the sixties with the anti-establishment sentiment alongside the Viet Nam War. Alberti contends these events shifted social structures moving more people to go solo. Now, a half century later, loneliness is summarized as “an epidemic like leprosy” (The Economist on twitter, 2018).
But history isn’t the only place loneliness hails from, says MIT professor Sherry Turkel. She makes a strong case that social media makes us feel Alone Together (2011). While most agree that text keeps us connected, it can’t make up for meaningful relationships. Emojis don't fill the bill for face to face communication. I agree with Turkel that we are being silenced by technology. With insight she summarizes “these silences have led to a crisis of empathy that has diminished us at home, at work, and in public life. I’ve already said the remedy is a talking cure” (2016).
Nicholas Kristof chimes in convinced that community as a key contributor to loneliness: “extended families have dissolved, and social institutions like churches, bowling leagues and neighborhood clubs have frayed. We are no longer embedded in our communities” (2019: 11/9). Kristof is echoing Robert Putnam’s point in Bowling Alone. Though the number of people who bowl has increased, the number bowling in leagues has decreased. This suggests those who bowl alone miss social interaction and civic discussion bonded by shared history and common purpose.
No matter how you see it, loneliness is serious business. It’s not just depressing. It’s deadly: increasing heart attacks, obesity, substance abuse, dementia and early death (Holt-Lunstad, 2010). So taking notice, talking about it and battling it is important. The ‘how to’ is hard. Some best steps are offered in Forbes Career Newsletter https://www.forbes.com/sites/francesbridges/2019/05/16/how-to-battle-loneliness/#4bff64be36d8—which brings us to McCartney’s final question: "Look at all the lonely people. Where do they all belong?"
Hearing that lyric brings it home. Belonging afterall, is the heart of the matter. All of us want—no, need—to belong. But that’s no academic question backed up by statistics. It’s a deeply spiritual noticing. Christian scripture suggests it’s not good for people to be alone. “For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!” (Ecclesiastes 4:10).
But here's the paradox. Most of us like Brendan above, learn that longing for belonging can’t always be quenched only in our relationships. Psychotherapists like me say enmeshment leads to codependency, and codependency co-opts rather than completes people. It's easy to lose ourselves in others believing they can fill the hole in the soul. Created in God’s image we are called to a trinity of intimacy with God, self and others. Finding our true Center in the Sacred cements a secure base to share ourselves safely with others without losing identity. From this Center we can better balance autonomy with community.
John’s letter underlines this idea: “we love because God first loved us” (I John 4:19). Dutch Priest and psychologist Henri Nouwen fleshes the argument out. He insists we can only be one-of-a-kind by returning to our First Love, God. Being seen through Christ in God we are called Beloved. It can take a lifetime to accept our acceptance. Because we all have original wounds perpetrated by people, circumstances and choices. Nouwen says this makes us “enormously needy” and creates an “interlocking network of wounds” (2019, 56). This leaves us feeling rejected. We don't belong.
The antidote is pay attention to our longing for a Source greater than ourselves noted first by St Augustine: “our hearts are restless until we find our rest in God.” Returning to our First Love fills the soul wound showing us a Way beyond transactional relationships (quid pro quo), to unconditional love that allows us not only to love our neighbor, but our enemies too. A belonging that brings us to true Center engaging relationships where all things belong. From this place of safety we can risk vulnerability.
Summing up, loneliness is an epidemic in the US. One recent study tops Cacioppo and Cigna saying "60% of Americans report feeling lonely" (OH&S). Loneliness is not depression. It is dislocation. It is disorientation believing we don’t belong. The roots of loneliness are complex. Its antidote balances autonomy with community. So the two Pauls were on to something. Loneliness won't likely to go away. But one thing is for sure: the questions compel us, especially as Christians, to quest to find answers.
Cacioppo, J. TedxDesMoines. The lethality of lonliness. Sept. 9, 2013. TedxDesMoines: Loneliness is Lethal.
Holt-Lunstad, J. (2015: Mar 11). Loneliness and Social interaction and mortality as risk factors for mortality. Sage Publications. Loneliness and Social Interaction
Kristof, N. (2019, Nov 9). Lets wage a war on loneliness. NY Times, Opinion.
Nouwen, H., Ed. by Earnshaw, G. (2019). Following Jesus. Our way home in an age of anxiety. Convergent: NY.
Nouwen, H. (1988). The Road To Daybreak: a spiritual journey. Image: NY.
Nouwen, H. (1982). Life Of the Beloved: Spiritual living in a secular world. Crossroad: NY.
Nouwen, H. (1975). Reaching Out. The three movements of the spiritual life. Image: NY.
Occupational Health and Safety. (2020:1/28). Study sees rise in lonely Americans and Workplace.
Putnam, R. (2000). Bowling Alone. The collapse and revival of American community. Simon & Schuster: NY.
Turkle, S. (2015). Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk In a Digital Age: Penguin: NY.
Turkle, S. (2011). Alone Together: Why we Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other: Basic Books: NY.